David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, 2009). $29.95, hardcover.
By Hillary Chute
David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is indubitably, truly, a graphic novel. I’m not generally a fan of the term—much of the comics work I find the most appealing and profound is nonfiction, and “graphic novel,” then, presents an awkwardly popular misnomer. But among the range of work included under the umbrella term graphic novel, Mazzucchelli’s without question represents, I believe, the possibilities that that term, however bandied about, indicates—it is a lengthy, thick, original story, rife with allusions and motifs, with a recognizable plot: boy meets girl, loses girl, possibly regains girl. In contradistinction, we have works like Art Spiegelman’s 9/11-focused In the Shadow of No Towers, which is called a graphic novel and which he mentioned at a signing for that book’s release in 2004 is more like “novel graphics” than a “graphic novel.”
Asterios Polyp, though, is really accurately a straight-up graphic novel—a substantial and sophisticated work joining books like Charles Burns’ fictional masterpiece Black Hole, which also took the author ten or so years to complete (but which, unlike Mazzucchelli’s book, was serialized in Black Hole comic books Burns published along the way). Named for the professor and “paper architect” who is its main character, Asterios Polyp is a book that is explicitly about form—an architect and sculptor comprise the romantic dyad at is center—and that plays with the formal language of comics in compelling ways. But it is also a very painful book about love and fucking up, and in a sense, then, the book as a narrative object recapitulates the duality that it thematizes throughout—intellectualizing aridity versus emotional openness. The book ultimately places pressure on the duality—it’s the moral of the story, so to speak. (This is underscored by the fact that it is narrated by Asterios’s twin brother, Ignazio, who is dead but appears as a lively, savvy double.) Yet for a reader, as impressive as Mazzucchelli’s book is, the duality that is the subject of the plot may remain active: on one hand, one notes and appreciates the book’s massive visual virtuosity, and, on the other hand, one feels a love story trying to burn its way up to, or through, the artfully constructed surface. The book strives to co-implicate these, and it can work beautifully at times.
Each character in the book appears as his or her own discrete style of rendering, and each speaks in different fonts (Mazzucchelli here, as Spiegelman does in the title of his latest book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, calls attention to what we might think of as the irreducible comicsness of comics, its language that is a meld of the verbal and visual). The contrast between Asterios, an arrogant, tunnel-vision intellectualizer and semi-rake, and the thoughtful, grounded Hana Sonnenschein, a soft-spoken half-German, half-Japanese sculptor who becomes his wife, is played up visually to great effect; we see here clear examples of what comics as a narrative vehicle of expression does that prose cannot: it sharpens and symbolizes texture and feelings. Particularly moving—even truly romantic— is the scene in which the two first meet. As opposed to the visual layer playing up their dispositional differences, as happens often, here Mazzucchelli shows Asterios and Hana visually blending into one another as they first talk at a faculty party in the mid-80s. His unshaded person, composed entirely of forceful, clean blue lines, fills in softly with red cross-hatching; her blurry, fuzzy red self, indicative of her shyness, slowly becomes distinct during conversation, blue lines emerging to sharpen her features. And a double-spread near the end of the book that presages their divorce is perhaps the most resonant portion of the book: each page is splattered, it seems, with snatches of the fabric of their relational, everyday lives: it’s scary, and sexual, and painful, and routine, all at once, as moments in different sizes and shapes—mostly without words—jumble across and bleed off the pages. Here the form implies a real urgency; the pages are confusing and compelling and bodily, just like their life together. Against the relentless formalism of his shatterproof aesthetic epistemology (which defines him easily, perhaps too easily), it’s this—the moments that build the fabric of daily life—that Asterios wants to capture in his practice of videotaping each of his days. The opening sequence shows Asterios lying on his bed in the dark in his filthy, junked-up apartment, lit by the glow of the TV, videotapes scattered around him. One suspects he’s watching pornography. We later find out he is—of a sort: it’s the pornography of everyday life.
Asterios Polyp has been, so far, received reverently. In his rave review in the New York Times, Douglas Wolk opened by stating, “Modernism came late to comics.” I don’t believe this is true. In the U.S., at least, if we date comics as a bit older than 100 years old, we see plenty of comics heavily engaged with modernism even before the high modernism of the literary and art-visual world took off. (Winsor McCay’s tense, formal, irresolvable, recursively-structured waking-dreaming strips of the early 1900’s come to mind.) Asterios Polyp may be the most “modernist” by virtue of its constant references to received modernism. (Polyp’s first book, in 1975, is titled Modernism With a Human Face—which could also be the aspirational title of his memoirs.) But certainly, decades and decades before Mazzucchelli—in fact, since comics’ inception, I’ll suggest—comics have been formally modernist. Asterios Polyp, for its evidently self-conscious, and not a little ironic displays of wealth of knowledge of academic modernism, is no more “modernist” than many works that have already made a splash, like Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Building Stories (about architecture, not an architect) or Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns or Maus (inspired, as he has said, by the “architectonics” of McCay). What Asterios Polyp does is make its meditation on modernist form not only the motor of the work but also the articulated surface. Asterios Polyp is a paper architect—that is to say, when we meet him, his designs have never resulted in actual building. But what better metaphor is there for a cartoonist than a (paper) architect—an architect building something on paper? One can, in fact, be a “paper architect” and make something powerful. This is ultimately what the book is about: comics form, which hovers throughout as the absent referent. (In a scene in which Hana and Asterios visit with an experimental composer, there is a lengthy and valuable section nominally about the sonic that is an apt articulation of the formal possibilities of comics.)
And then there’s the love story: Significantly, Asterios—after Hana leaves him, his life collapses, and his apartment is struck by lightning—starts life again as a car mechanic, functionally rebuilding. And, eventually, he actually builds: he fashions a treehouse for his boss’s son, and he sets off to find Hana (now re-located from New York to Minneapolis) in an experimental hand-crafted solar-powered car cooked up at the auto garage. In the end, the car skids out in a snowbank and Asterios walks his way to Hana on foot. For him, the ultimate rebuilding actually has nothing to do with design.